Justinian's linguistic legislation

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I happened to be browsing through my copy of Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire and came upon a passage I had forgotten about. The Emperor Justinian is known, if at all, for his legal code. The Justinian code was indeed a great success as a codification. It settled numerous disputed points of law and relieved judges and lawyers of the need to consult a huge range of often contradictory legal sources dating back to the Laws of the Twelve Tables, and in some areas, it was progressive. In areas relating to religion and to sex, however, it was just plain awful, in some ways worse than Shari'a Law.

The testimony of those outside the orthodox Christian church, for example, was of no value at all against that of orthodox Christians. The abduction of a woman (by which was meant the removal of a woman from the home of her father or husband without his consent, with or without her consent) was punished by death in an unpleasant form. If the woman consented, she was subject to the same penalty. If she resisted, in which case, one would think, she would be entirely innocent, she was disinherited. If her duena was found to have encouraged her to give in to her seducer, she was to have molten lead poured into her mouth and throat "to close the aperture through which the wicked suggestions had emanated".

Justinian's main religious targets were pagans and heterodox Christians (there were no Muslims to persecute yet), and for some reason the Samaritans, but he was relatively tolerant of the Jews. To quote Bury (Volume 2, p. 366):

Though the lawgiver regarded them as "abominable men who sit in darkness," and they were excluded from the State-service, they were not deprived of their civil rights. Justinian recognized their religion as legitimate and respectable so far as to dictate to them how they should conduct the services in their synagogues. He graciously permitted them to read aloud the scriptures in Greek or Latin or other versions. If Greek was the language they were enjoined to use the Septuagint, "which is more accurate than all others", but they were allowed to use also the translation of Aquila. On the other hand, he strictly forbade the use of the "Deuterosis," which he described as the invention of uninspired mortals. This amazing law is thoroughly characteristic of the Imperial theologian.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    Jim O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire, which I happen to have been reading, blames Justinian for most of the bad things that happened in the 6th century. This review explains that

    The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the traditional starting point for those studying the demise of Rome. Gibbon's masterwork suggests that the great empire collapsed in large part due to violent invasions from barbarians such as the Visigoths, Vandals and other non-Romans. In The Ruin of the Roman Empire classical scholar James J. O'Donnell, in line with much modern revisionist thinking, turns this argument on it head. Rather than being a destructive influence, the barbarian kings within the empire tried to retain the good things about Roman rule. The real blame for the fall of Rome can in fact be attributed to Emperor Justinian.

  2. John said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    O'Donnell's book should be read in conjunction with Peter Heather's
    also recent Fall of the Roman Empire. They form a very interesting counterpoint to each other.

    Heather argues pretty cogently that the Germanic invasions were indeed very, very bad for the Western Empire, as Gibbon and the traditional story runs.

    The Eastern Empire, of which Justinian was one its most significant emperors, managed to recover Italy and North Africa during Justinian's reign, which had been lost. After his reign, the Eastern Empire managed to endure another 900 years. Justinian couldn't have been that inept.

  3. Peter Erwin said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    The Emperor Justinian is known, if at all, for his legal code.

    Well, you could argue he's also known for ordering the building of the Hagia Sophia, as well as for his vigorous (if ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to reunite or reconstitute the Roman Empire, as John points out above.

    (And then there are all the wonderful things Procopius said about him in The Secret History — how can you forget an emperor whose head would disappear at night?)

  4. Bill Poser said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    I suspect that most people who otherwise know nothing about Byzantine history know of the Justinian Code, but I could be wrong.

    Procopius' Anecdota is indeed a lot of fun. Indeed, Byzantine history is much more interesting than that of Western Europe. (I took a year of it as an undergrad.) My favorite story about Justinian is about the time he sent his army to Egypt to suppress the monophysite heresy. The problem was that his wife, the Empress Theodora, was herself a monophysite. Wanting to stop him, but not having the same resources and perhaps fearful of engaging in direct warfare with her husband, she sent her army ahead of her husband's and had them buy up all the mules so that her husband's army was unable to get to Egypt with all its baggage.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    The historical dispute over the "fall of the Roman Empire" seems to be mainly a matter of nomenclature. Westerns typically think of "Roman Empire" as meaning the Western Roman Empire, and there seems little doubt that the barbarian invasions brought it to an end. But the people of what we now know (since the 16th century) as the "Byzantine Empire" thought of themselves as Romans (Rhōmaioi) and of their state as Basileia ton Rhōmaiōn, Kingdom of the Romans.
    By the way, Deuterosis is the Greek name of the Mishnah, which is not a translation of the Scriptures but an extensive rabbinic treatise. I am curious whether Bury knew that.

  6. Liz said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    @Bill, more annoyingly for Justinian, his cousin Anicia Juliana, built a monophysite church, St. Polyeuktos, to the dimensions of the Temple of Ezekiel, at the same time as his Hagia Sophia, which would explain the relatively rushed construction (10 years) of the Hagia Sophia*

    *Martin Harrison, A Temple for Byzantium: The Discovery and Excavation of Anicia Juliana's Palace Church in Istanbul. Austin, Univ. Texas Press, 1989.

  7. lyzazel said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    I remember having to learn about this in the Law School.

    The four parts were IIRC: codexes – a codification of all the laws passed by all the Roman emperors, digests – works of classical jurists such as Ulpian or Gaius, institutions – a part of the codification that discusses the whole system and structure of the Roman Law and novellas – parts added to the codification later.

    As you can see, it is indeed more of a "codification" rather than "legislation" and most of the things written in there are not something that Justinian himself would have come up with.

    Thus the ones to be blamed for all the peculiar laws in the codification are Justinian's predecessors rather than he himself. Of course, the fact that he could have removed some of these laws from the codification is another question…

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    I was also initially baffled by Bury's reference to the Deuterosis, which seemed on my first reading to suggest a different Greek version of the OT — one I had never heard of. Maybe the word "Mishnah" has entered American English to an extent it had not entered British English, at least in Bury's time? It is a pity that the freedom to use the translation of Aquila (which really was somewhat tolerant, since Aquila's rendering is said to have been generally less hospitable to a Christian interpretation than the LXX's in many places) did not result in the preservation of a more complete version of Aquila's text to the present day. There were Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews in the territory of what is now Greece up to the present day (and there's apparently a Romaniote-origin synagogue in NYC), but perhaps while speaking Greek at home and in the street they shifted back to Hebrew in synogogue services somewhere along the way and/or used a version other than Aquila.

    On Lyzazel's point, the relative rights of Christians and non-Christians under Roman law had obviously shifted quite a bit from the time of Diocletian to the time of Justinian, but as to the status of women it's not clear to me whether Dr. Poser was suggesting that Justinian had made matters worse or that he simply preserved the unsatisfactory status quo ante inherited from pagan Rome. Since there was no Islam in Justinian's time, he obviously did not have the progressive example of the Sharia to draw upon.

    I started O'Donnell's book, but got sufficiently worn out by the self-congratulatoriness of his revisionist slant that I lost steam by the end of the yay-Theodoric section and gave it back to the library before getting into the boo-Justinian section.

  9. chris said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 12:31 am

    In areas relating to religion and to sex, however, it was just plain awful, in some ways worse than Shari'a Law.

    To take the semantic discussion in a different direction: isn't that a gross oversimplification of shari'a law?? It's not as though Shari'a Law = stoning to death of rape victims. I get the impression that shari'a law is essentially just Islamic law, and there are as many different varieties and interpretations of it as there are of Islam itself. Shari'a doesn't need to be fundamentalist or medieval. It's perfectly possible for shari'a law to be quite enlightened if the opinions of reformist Islamic legal scholars are followed. To tar the entire concept with the brush of Taleban-style barbarism is not what I would have expected from the sensible minds of Language Log Plaza.

  10. TB said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 1:08 am

    suspect that most people who otherwise know nothing about Byzantine history know of the Justinian Code, but I could be wrong.

    Well, does art history count as history? From loving Byzantine art and learning something about it I feel like I've learned a few things about Justinian. Like the fact that Theodora was an actress and Justinian's uncle the emperor Justin had to enact a law saying that actresses who quit acting can get married to nobles for them to get married. I also like his quote on the completion of Hagia Sofia: "Solomon, I have surpassed thee!"

    The portrait mosaics of Justinian and Theodora at Ravenna are some of my favorite works of art in the world.

  11. Yanpol said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 2:17 am

    As Lyazel has said, Justinian's is a compilation which has four parts. The Institutiones (a law handbook), the Codex (a collection of imperial decisions on specific disputes), the Digest (a collection of statutes and jurisprudence on those statutes) and Novellae (Justinian's own additions, i.e. "little news"). But for the last part, there's little there which is Justinian's (a bit more in the Codex, but none in the Digest). Most of the awful bits came from his predecessors, but law tends to be quite conservative, and Justinian did little to do away with it.

    It's true that the Codex preserved some imperial decisions that protect the Jews, but also it forbade intermarry between Christian and Jews, barred the latter from some offices, and forbade the enslavement of a Christian by a Jew or a pagan, but not the other way round. The building of new synagogues was discouraged by means of tax. Apostasy from Christianity to Judaism was punished with property confiscation. Other religious groups suffered worse, but to say that Justinian was favourable to the Jews is not entirely correct.

    Justinian's church was the Catholic church. The split with Rome took place only in the 11th century. The rites were different, but the church was still united, even if riven with bitter disputes.

    It would be interesting to see what a linguist would do with the 50.16 book of the Digest, in which deals with the meanings of words, or with the many examples of crappy etymology that sprinkle the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

    PS: Shari'a law can be interpreted more leniently by liberal Islamic jurists, but the source of Shari'a law are al-Qur'an and the hadith. It is there were you find that women's rights are diminished in terms of testimony, matrimony or inheritance. These are the most important bits of the law, because they affect the whole of the population. Penal law is very seldom applied (and here Shari'a is not very enlightened either). Justinian law is mostly secular and changing it took ages. Imagine how difficult it would be to change a document allegedly dictated by God.

  12. Mossy said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 2:27 am

    "Justinian's church was the Catholic church." "The testimony of those outside the orthodox Christian church, for example, was of no value at all against that of orthodox Christians."

    It was simply the church. There was not yet the distinction between Catholic and Orthodox or East and West. Neither were there really "other Christians" in the modern sense of "other denominations." There were groups of Christians who did not accept decisions of the eucumenical councils and/or had other "heretical" ideas (i.e., those that contradicted the council decisions).

  13. Martin said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 3:27 am

    It might be best to read 'orthodox' in what Bill originally wrote without the capital 'O' that some readers appear to believe was intended.

  14. Mossy said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    I thought about that, and of course only Mr Poser can tell us what he meant. But I (for what it's worth) wouldn't use the word, big O or little o. There was really only one church (Church) in the 6th century, and the folks who didn't accept various decisions of the ECs considered themselves part of that chuch (Church), even if the folks in Constantiople or Rome considered them heretical.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    I'm not sure that ecclesiastical history is a field in which the LL commentariat will prove to have a comparative advantage in enhancing our knowledge, but let me throw in a modern lexical/usage tidbit which may not be widely known. Dr. Poser referred to the ecclesiastical group on the outs with Justinian (although not his wife) as "monophysite," which seems to remain the standard scholarly English word and is generally not pejoratively intended. But of course as will happen it turns out that some present-day members of the churches which descend from the heterodox side of that particular dispute really dislike being called "monophysite" and would much prefer that they, their churches, and their theological position instead be called "miaphysite." The Greek semantic difference, if any, between mono physis and mia physis would seem quite a subtle one, but they have their reasons. So those wishing to appear sensitive to the Miaphysite-American Community (and its Canadian etc. counterpart) should consider conforming their usage accordingly.

  16. acilius said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    @J W Brewer: Thanks for the information! I had no idea that there still were Miaphysites around. Wikipedia seems to think they are quite numerous, in fact:

  17. Mossy said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    There ARE lots of them, and as a group they are called the Oriental Orthodox Churches, a name which, on a more linguistic note, doesn't yet seem to offend anyone. Also, on a more or less LLish note, now some people in and out of these churches believe that the original cause of the split was an error in translation. I know, I know: Blame the translators. But it was about 1500 years ago, before Internet and Multitran, and they were translating discussions and documents about the nature of Christ. About 700 years ago someone said, "Oh, is THAT what you meant?"
    Sorry; don't mean to be flip. This is really just a plug for translators.

  18. vanya said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Excuse my ignorance but what is a "duena"? Is that supposed to be "dueña" – Spanish for "domina"?

  19. Alex said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    A duena is a sort of governess/chaperone/companion for an unmarried girl.

  20. stripey_cat said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    I also thought duena could be used for a chaperone to a married woman, if she isn't allowed to meet males (outside immediate family) alone.

  21. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

    @vanya, Alex
    More commonly spelled "duenna" (at least in English).

  22. Michael Kochin said,

    May 17, 2009 @ 3:20 am

    "Misna" (sic) appears in Macaulay's "History of England," in the first discussion of what would become the "Non-Jurors"

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